iStock The longer the modernization of these systems takes, the more likely it is that they will break down, notes the auditor general.
Canadians are not safe from another IT fiasco like that of the Phoenix payroll system, which occurred a few years ago. Because two-thirds of the software used by the federal government has exceeded its useful life and needs to be modernized — and thus threatens the reliability of several essential services.
This is the observation made by of the Auditor General of Canada, Karen Hogan, in one of her reports tabled Thursday. It comes more than 24 years after Ottawa already admitted that the aging of its IT systems was problematic.
“I have concerns every day that a system that is not modernized could break down,” lamented Ms. Hogan at a press briefing in Ottawa.
Her investigation reveals that of the few 7,500 “applications” – this is the term used in the report, synonymous with software – used by 45 federal departments and agencies, two-thirds were obsolete. There are also more than 562 pieces of software “essential to the health, safety, security or economic well-being of the Canadian population” to be modernized.
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This analysis does not include the entire federal government, but this sample of 45 departments and agencies remains very representative of the government system as a whole.
The computer systems analyzed were between 20 and 60 years old, said Ms. Hogan, who said she was “perplexed” by the slow pace of their modernization. At a press briefing, the latter also compared their condition to that of an “old car”. “You can drive a car that is 50 years old, but it is expensive to maintain and it is not always reliable,” she imagined.
Possible payment failures
The problem of aging software extends to the systems that provide benefits to millions of Canadians, such as Old Age Security, the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance. These computer systems are several decades old and are not immune to a possible breakdown.
Auditor General Hogan noted in particular that the system on which the employment insurance system depends had not not been modernized, although a 2010 audit report on the same subject already warned at the time that the system was at risk of breakdown.
The old-age pension payment system is also outdated. “[It] is 60 years old, there are definitely risks,” said Ms. Hogan. The full migration of Old Age Security to a more modern platform, for its part, was to be completed this year, but it risks being postponed until December 2025.
“The delays are increase the risk of a significant outage that could interrupt the payment of benefits to Canadians who rely on them to meet their daily needs,” worries the Auditor General.
A target out of reach
Despite reporting the problem for many years, progress has been very slow. If advancements continue at current rates, only 45% of software will be modernized by 2030.
The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat aims to make 60% of all government applications “in good condition” by 2030, but the federal government will likely miss this target: this percentage has only increased from 33% to 38 % between 2019 and 2023. And even if it were reached, 40% of applications would then be considered obsolete, 31 years after the federal government recognized the problem.
Ms. Hogan also serves some warnings regarding this project: the fiasco of the Phénix payroll system is notably cited as an example of what can “go wrong” when monitoring of a modernization project is insufficient. A few years ago, the introduction of this system had led to thousands of overpayments and absences of pay for months, in particular – not to mention the stress, anxiety and financial and health problems caused to the workers affected by the fiasco.
In other reports tabled Thursday, the Auditor General of Canada also concluded that the federal government is not taking the problem of growing antibiotic resistance seriously enough, or that organizations like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police do not sufficiently monitor their workplace inclusion programs.